To spoon-feed is not to nurture

Increase in students 'puzzled' by independent learning is fuelling crisis, writes Sarah Cunnane

November 24, 2011

Creating a market in higher education will lead to less independent, "spoon-fed" students, and exacerbate a growing crisis in teaching and learning, a scholar has claimed.

Peter Ovens, senior research fellow at the University of Cumbria, said that around a third of students struggled to learn independently, even after a year at university.

And he warned that the rise in bureaucracy had reduced the time available for developing students. "It's part of the modern world, I realise that, but it does have a distorting effect," he said. "You do what you can for the students, but the impetus is taken away from teaching and learning."

Dr Ovens' research, which was discussed last week at a conference at Nottingham Trent University titled Learning How to Learn in Higher Education, suggests that a growing proportion of students are "puzzled" by the idea of independent learning.

This is because they have often been led through their schooling by their teachers, who he said were focused on "meeting targets and Ofsted requirements".

On his finding that one in three first-year undergraduates struggle to learn independently, he said: "They are not taking control of their learning in the way we would want them to because they still want to be trained like they were at school."

Dr Ovens added that the current generation of students had been assessed "more than any other", and that the problem of dealing with students unused to independent learning was not unique to the UK: "When we talk to colleagues worldwide, they have very similar problems, and they agree that the problems are getting progressively worse year on year."

Current UK reforms focusing on the student experience carried the risk of a "knee-jerk" response that would lead to even greater spoon-feeding of students, Dr Ovens said.

He argued that academics had to respond to these issues by treating students as independent scholars: "Their autonomy is the single biggest value that can be developed; academics should not view students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge."

If current trends in teaching and learning were not reversed, Dr Ovens said, it would lead to further problems that would have an impact far beyond the students' time in university.

"People will continue to learn and they will continue to get degrees but it will tend to be with a particular attitude towards knowledge and learning," he said.

"And that attitude is to expect things to come to you, to be provided, to be determined by other people. The confidence to use your own knowledge will not be developed."

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